Roadside trash a growing problem – Monterey Herald
If you think you’ve seen more roadside trash lately, it’s not just you. Several residents have reported that more trash has been seen on the streets of Monterey in recent months.
And local government officials are aware of the problem. In fact, it was a growing and expensive problem even before the pandemic, but COVID-19’s security measures have only exacerbated it.
“We have heard many complaints about the areas where people are starting to get out of control,” said Ted Terrasas, sustainability coordinator for the city of Monterey.
It’s not that waste increased during the pandemic, some officials say. One of the factors is that fewer people are available to clean it up.
Shawn Atkins, public works maintenance manager for Monterey county, said ahead of COVID the county had relied on people working outside of community service hours for much of its roadside garbage collection. Once the pandemic hit, it was not possible to keep the crews socially distant and adequately rehabilitate the PPE workers who wore them to keep them safe on the streets, so they had to suspend the program.
“We went from being a throwing team of six to eight people a day to being a thrower who records the throw,” Atkins said.
“So the garbage stayed in the environment much longer – months longer than normal in some cases.”
Trash was a problem long before COVID
As long-time residents know, even before COVID, keeping up with the litter on Monterey’s streets was a challenge. Atkins said his cleaning crew are so busy just cleaning up illegal landfills that they don’t have time to walk over the shoulders of their streets picking up loose trash.
Officials say the roadside litter problem and the cost of removing it began before the pandemic. (Courtesy photo of Caltrans)
“Even then, there was often two weeks to a month backlog in landfills,” Atkins said.
Atkins described situations where his workers spent hours cleaning up a landfill, going to lunch, and then coming back to find that the same landfill had already been dumped.
“It’s always been like we couldn’t keep up with the workload – and COVID just removed that from the list,” he said.
Caltrans, which is responsible for state highway cleanliness, is facing the same problem, said Kevin Drabinski, information officer for Caltrans, District 5. District 5 oversees Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
Although Drabinski said it was frustrating to see how quickly garbage builds up in a newly cleaned site, “We just stick further and believe that this is the cure for the situation,” he said.
Picking up rubbish is expensive
Roadside litter disposal is just one of the many maintenance tasks Caltrans does, including repairing and installing guardrails, filling potholes, and cutting trees. Drabinski said it was important to Caltrans that they handle trash, not just because it looks bad, but also for safety and environmental reasons. But this effort is not without costs.
According to Drabinski, Caltrans spends $ 50 million a year on rubbish cleaning across the country.
“These tens of millions of dollars that we spend nationwide on garbage collection,” he said, “we would like to devote to other valuable areas.”
Cleaning up illegal landfills is also extremely costly, and not just because of the removal of bulky items such as mattresses and furniture. Atkins said he’s seen a significant increase in the past five years [SM1] in complex hazardous materials – that is, hazardous and often unidentified chemicals – dumped along roads.
Atkins said any unidentified chemicals must be laboratory tested before the county can proceed with the cleanup, which can cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. If any of the chemicals got into the environment, there will be additional costs to clean up the site.
“Many places will pick up small amounts of household paints, motor oils and the universal material,” Atkins said. To safely dispose of other chemicals, businesses or individuals must contact a hazardous waste transport company.
Opportunities for volunteers
According to Drabinski, cleaning up rubbish is one of the more visible aspects of what Caltrans does: “When rubbish shows up on the freeway, people think of us.”
But he says it all comes from a community that takes pride in where they live. Terrasas, Drabinski, and Atkins all mentioned how city, state, and county authorities must work together to keep the waste problem under control.
“It is this network that comes together to convey the feeling of a vibrant, healthy community,” said Drabinski.
Atkins said the county has commissioned a local vendor to pick up roadside litter and clean up landfills in the near future.
In the meantime, the increased waste can still be annoying for many. But there are ways to help.
Residents can get involved by reporting illegal dumping, properly disposing of their chemical waste, tying down loads, and refraining from dumping and rubbish. You can find more information on reporting illegal dumping and properly disposing of waste on the county’s Ministry of Health website.
Residents can also take part in cleanup work. Monterey County has an Adopt-a-Roadway program that allows residents to be active members of their communities by regularly collecting trash on a specific stretch of road, Atkins said.
“We always welcome people who want to volunteer,” he said.
Caltrans also has an Adopt-a-Highway program.
Drabinski hopes that cleaner highways will have an effect of keeping people away from the garbage in the first place.
“Hopefully the areas of the highway that we can keep clean are encouragement for people to keep keeping them clean,” he said.